In earlier essays in this series, I tended to examine darker, more melancholic songs. But I don’t want to always be Mr. Bummer. I want to counter that reputation by discussing a song that is fun, blithe, and, honestly, completely ridiculous.
It’s February, the month of love! Maybe it’s perverse, but I wanna talk about Prince’s “Tamborine.”
“Tamborine” is roughly two minutes of threadbare metaphor for masturbation. When you listen to it, you giggle a little bit. Is it worth pondering beyond that? I think so.
First thing to note about this song is it appears on the album called Around The World In A Day, which was the deliberately Sgt. Pepper’s-ish 1985 follow-up to Purple Rain. It’s the same album that has the masterful singles “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life.” (I know you’d probably rather talk about those perfect songs, but let’s stay on track here.)
Why is it notable that “Tamborine” appears on this album? Because Around The World In A Day is credited to Prince and The Revolution. It’s a full-band record, not a solo album.
The Revolution was Prince’s best and most famous band. Like James Brown, George Clinton, and Miles Davis, Prince had a few bands in the course of his work. And just like Brown, Clinton, and Davis, he only worked with excellent, limber musicians—never scrubs. But, I mean, come on… The Revolution absolutely ruled, people! Their aggregate charisma amplified Prince’s vision way more than any other ensemble before or after. It’s pointless to deny it.
So here’s the interesting thing: Though the song is officially credited to Prince and The Revolution, “Tamborine” is actually just Prince in the studio all by himself.Prince programmed the Linn drum machine that forms the spine of the groove. He then overdubbed funk drums on top of that. The dude was super-gifted and disciplined. He could play any instrument competently. He is the everybody on this song.
But why? He had access to one of the best and coolest bands in the world! Why would he choose to do this? Recording solo had to be a more time-consuming process, right?
Well, it’s pretty obvious: “Tamborine” is a song about self-pleasure that was created alone. Perfectly meta. Throughout the song, Prince is winking to the listener about this. He does falsetto vocal riffs that sound like backing singers commenting on the main singer’s lyrics. But it’s just Prince talking to Prince.
There’s a burst of multi-tracked harmonies that blossom in the middle of the song that sound ecstatic and spontaneous, almost like gospel. But by the nature of the process, this had to be fastidiously arranged and planned. It’s really fun when you picture it: Overdub after overdub, Prince put a “group” together.
“Tamborine” is about sexual pleasure, but you have to admit it’s a pretty eccentric physical metaphor. I mean, tambourines are not particularly erotic objects. If this was an AC/DC song, they would have gone with a more conspicuously phallic or vaginal choice. I love AC/DC, but you know they were terrifically dumb that way.
But when Prince wanted to sing about masturbation and genitalia, he selected an object that was neither male nor female. Clever way of conveying his erotic value system.
Speaking of his value system, it’s a Prince song about sexual desire and pleasure, so of course he had to express his enduring moral tension around this area. Whenever Prince got horny in music—which was often—the concepts of sin and guilt were never too far away.
“Tamborine, what are you?/ Why are you the star of all my dreams?/ Are you good? Are you bad?/ Are you just a necessary means?”
That’s fantastic writing. And he delivers it with lust and exuberance and just the right amount of torture.
Throughout the song, Prince onomatopoeically imitates the sound of shaking a tambourine. He repeatedly sings “truh-buh-LING!” But of course this comes out as the word “troubling!” A fun little play on words.
The song comes to a climax (heh) with the line “Lonely days, lonely nights/ Too bad we’re not allowed to scream/ Yeah yeah too bad/ Guess I’ll stay at home/ All alone and play my tamborine.”
The song manages to be both clever and dopey all at once. And, in keeping with the psychedelic theme of Around The World In A Day, it’s also trippy. (For some reason, he repeatedly refers to trolley cars? Your guess is as good as mine)
There are certainly more famous songs about self-pleasure (The Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself,” Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-ling” and Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” etc.) but I think this weird little funk freakout is the most evocative and most fun.